Most of us are visual learners and this means an efficient note-taking strategy is an invaluable contribution to success in your Fellowship exams.  

The breadth and depth of content you’ll need to master in preparation for your exams requires that you find an effective method to encode and recall this information. Being a capable and focused note taker will help you do this, both in capturing the material you’ve studied and in synthesising that information in a way that makes maximum sense for you.  

Whether it’s a lecture, journal article or online content, taking notes for exams means you’ll be actively engaging with the subject matter through an evidence-based learning strategy. According to research, note taking allows you to better remember what you’ve read as the effort required helps form new neural pathways and encodes the information in a way that is better stored in your long-term memory.  

Education experts know that active learning can be a key building block in the comprehension and retention of essential facts and data that will likely be tested in your exam. 

Smart note taking also helps to avoid rote learning, which inevitably leads to recalling information in a mechanical way and not necessarily understanding what it means or being able to apply it through clinical reasoning. Additionally, passive learning of information is less effectively stored in your long-term memory, meaning it will be more difficult to recall.  

How does a good note taker assist retention? 

When you take notes, you’re focusing on visual or verbal information and then translating it into words on a page. According to research, this coordination of mental and physical actions is ‘significantly better on both comprehension and recall tests’ in students who use note taking. The findings also demonstrated that students ‘remembered more important ideas and better identified the relationships between ideas’, an important skill in Fellowship exams. 

Note-taking will also help you stay focussed and alert during webinars and presentations where you’re likely sitting alone and can be easily distracted.  

Which are best: comprehensive or brief notes? 

Should you take as many notes as possible or condense the information? You might be surprised to learn that the more notes you can take, the greater your recall will be later. Researchers working with university psychology students in New Zealand found there were high correlations ‘between the quantity of notes and examination performance’ in the group of students. So try to capture all the important points in your note taking and don’t hesitate to add navigational symbols, such as arrows, brackets and asterisks, to make things clearer and to avoid repetition. 

Use graphics, illustrations and abbreviations in your note taking 

Of course, words are great but there are times when a concept is better represented by an illustration, graphic or flow-chart. If you practise doing this, you’ll find you’re able to save time and energy by creating a meaningful informative graphic or illustration instead of writing a bundle of phrases or sentences. 

Take care to ensure you’ll be able to extract the full meaning of the picture when you come back to it later. If you’re unsure, take a few seconds to add a word or two that will trigger your memory when you want to recall it later. 

Make notes on paper not your computer 

As a note taker you might feel more comfortable using your computer keyboard, and ‘cut and paste’ makes collecting notes easy. However, the act of manually writing individual words and sentences, which requires complex eye-hand coordination, enhances learning and memory retention.  You also need to ensure there are meaningful relationships between the words you write down, and writing reinforces your understanding and retention of this information. 

Traditional note-taking methods 

Following are three smart note-taking methods that are used in prominent universities. There are also many other well-known methods that have emerged over time. Research them online and then choose the note-taking method that works best for your individual style of learning. 

1. The Cornell method of note taking 

Cornell University is located in upstate New York. The university contends that handwritten notes have been proven to be one of the most efficient methods of study, and its Cornell Note Taking System module is widely recommended and available to students everywhere. 

The Cornell Method divides your note page into three sections, including a vertical column taking up one-third of the page on its left-hand side that’s labelled ‘Cue.’ The remaining two thirds of the page make for a larger column that’s labelled ‘Notes.’ The final section is a horizontal strip along the bottom of the page labelled ‘Summary.’ 

The Notes section is where you write down what the presenter or Medical Educator says in the webinar or meeting. This is generally the main points of the webinar or journal article, and other important details. After completing the Note section, it’s time to write down questions in the Cue section that will help you recall or organise the information. Finally, there’s the Summary section and this is where you, as a note taker, write what you learned While it’s tempting to skip this section, it’s important that you don’t because summarising your learning helps you to process and retain it. 

2. The Outline method 

The Outline method is probably the most straightforward and popular method. The note taker begins by writing down a main point at the left of the page. Any subsidiary or supporting ideas that are linked to the main point should appear beneath in an indented list.  

When you come to the next main topic, begin again from the left, with subsidiary points again indented beneath and to the right. If you need to elaborate on a particular issue, you can create indented lists to your indented lists. 

The Outline method generates a structured hierarchy of ideas that is logical and easy to follow. Outline notes require no special template and are best recorded by hand. You can learn more about the Outline method through Goodnotes

3. The Mind Map method 

If you’re a visual learner, then the Mind Map method could be your preferred choice for smart note taking. The topic of the webinar or class is written in the centre of the page, and keywords, symbols and phrases are added using connecting lines that branch vertically and horizontally from the main topic.  

Due to the nature of the mind map it’s easy to look for connections and comparisons between the ideas you’ve added in keywords or symbols. The graphical presentation also allows you to see hierarchies, relationships, repetition, similarities and commonalities. 

You can learn more about the Mind Map method at University Librarian.  

If you take the time to become a good note taker, it will benefit you substantially at exam time. You’ll have quality notes that you can rely on for your study and revision, and your retention of those notes will help you achieve better exam results. 


Want some extra help preparing for your Fellowship exams? GPEx’s high quality suite of exam preparation courses teach target strategies and techniques to guide your learning.